A note from Al Letson regarding a new multi-part series airing from “Reveal”

by Admin PRX

Dear public media colleagues, 

I’m writing about a new series we will soon be airing on “Reveal.” Our new seven-part serialized investigation, titled “Mississippi Goddam: The Ballad of Billey Joe,” will air as weekly episodes of “Reveal” starting October 16 and ending December 4. 

In the series, we follow an event in 2008, when a teenager named Billey Joe Johnson left his house in a small town in Mississippi before dawn but was pronounced dead later that day following a traffic stop. The series will weave between the history of racial injustice in America to our current reckoning around policing, and it’s personal to me. We believe this will be powerful listening. For this reason, I’m sharing more context with you, here:

When Nina Simone wrote her battle cry for justice, “Mississippi Goddam,” some states banned it. But they couldn’t silence the person known as the voice of the civil rights movement. Now, nearly 60 years later, we at “Reveal” are invoking Simone’s anthem in “Mississippi Goddam: the Ballad of Billey Joe.” Simone and her work are inspirations for this series because the wrongs she sang about still exist today.

I first came across this story a decade ago while I was on a reporting trip in rural Mississippi. People told me about the case of a 17-year-old Black high school student, who died during a traffic stop with a white sheriff’s deputy. Billey Joe Johnson was a football star with scholarship offers from top universities. His family never believed the official story that he had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, fired either accidentally or on purpose. 

When we started looking into the case, we realized immediately that there was a hole in the investigation that was the size of the family. They were barely interviewed and their concerns were not addressed. So, I made a promise to the family that our investigation would ask the questions that went unanswered. What we uncovered was a deeply flawed death investigation, with law enforcement failing to follow leads, explore inconsistencies, corroborate witness accounts or complete crucial forensics tests. 

This series is not a true-crime investigation. We don’t know what happened to Billey Joe, and it’s not our job to find out. Our job is to ask the questions that investigators never did and to finally give the Johnson family something that they have been yearning for: to be heard. 

This story pulled me in immediately because it reminded me of growing up as a Black kid in the south, where justice looks different for different people. It’s about the Mississippi Nina Simone sang about, but also very much about America. So while our series is called “Mississippi Goddam,” really it should be called “America Goddam.” 

As always, thank you for your support, and for giving these stories the air they need to breathe.

If you have any questions about the series or “Reveal,” please reach out to the station services team at PRX.

Al Letson, host of “Reveal”